Methods of Primary Research

Much like how different academic fields have different Discourse Communities, how research is defined varies widely from field to field, and, as you progress through your college career, your coursework will teach you much more about what it means to be a researcher within your field. For example, engineers, who focus on applying scientific knowledge to develop designs, processes, and objects, conduct research using simulations, mathematical models, and a variety of tests to see how well their designs work. Sociologists conduct research using surveys, interviews, observations, and statistical analyses to better understand people, societies, and cultures. Graphic designers conduct research through locating images for reference for their artwork and engaging in background research on clients and companies to best serve their needs. Historians conduct research by examining archival materials—newspapers, journals, letters, and other surviving texts—and through conducting oral history interviews. Research is not limited to what has already been written or found at the library, also known as secondary research. Primary research is research that is collected firsthand rather than found in a book, database, or journal.

Primary research is often based on the principles of the scientific method, a theory of investigation first developed by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century in his book Philosophy of the Scientific Method. Although the application of the scientific method varies from field to field, the general principles of the scientific method allow researchers to learn more about the world through observable phenomena. Using the scientific method, researchers develop questions or hypotheses and then collect data on events, objects, or people that is measurable, observable, and replicable. The ultimate goal in conducting primary research is to learn about something new that can be confirmed by others and to eliminate our own biases in the process.

This section explores some common ways of conducting primary research in Writing 250:

  • Surveys. Asking participants about their opinions and behaviors through a short questionnaire.
  • Interviews. Asking participants questions in a one-on-one or small group setting.
  • Observations. Observing and measuring the world around you, including observations of people and other measurable events.

How do you choose between a survey, an interview, or an observation? It depends on what kind of information you are looking for. You should use surveys if you want to learn about a general trend in people’s opinions, experiences, and behavior. Surveys are particularly useful to find small amounts of information from a wider selection of people in the hopes of making a general claim. Interviews are best used when you want to learn detailed information from a few specific people. Interviews are also particularly useful if you want to interview experts about their opinions. Observations are useful for gathering data about actual human behavior by recording it as it occurs. In sum, then, use surveys to learn general patterns from many people, interviews to gain details from a few people, and observations to determine how people behave or act.

For WRIT 250, a single primary research method can often suffice. However, students may also combine two or more of these primary research methods for their projects. For example, an elementary education major who is exploring the impact of technology on reading abilities might observe the classroom where she has been placed by her program in addition to interviewing the teacher about the students’ use of technology. Alternatively, a business major who is researching college students’ knowledge of student loans might survey students to gauge their levels of knowledge and interview a professor who is an expert in that field.

Of course, there are other ways of conducting primary research. Given the various constraints of the course, they are less common in Writing 250, but they may be more common in your particular field of study:

  • Case Study. In-depth analysis of a person or group of people over a period of time.
  • Focus Group. Planned small-group discussions around a particular topic.
  • Data/Text Analysis. Analysis of an existing collection of data or texts.
  • Clinical Trials. Study of a medical approach, device, or treatment.